David Hoffman

Before Love There Must Be Honesty: Tisha B’Av 2023

Almost one out of every two Israelis fears for the destruction of the State of Israel.

Of this group, nearly half believes that the threat is an internal one:

22% of all Israelis believe the existential threat to their country is not from Iran, not from Hamas or Gaza — but from other Jews.

One out of five Israelis believe that hatred between Jews (sinat chinam) threatens the very existence of their country.  Let’s say that again – Not the health or vitality of the society – but the existence of the State.

Among the religious population in Israel, the numbers more than double.  46% of this group (!) believe the greatest threat to the existence of the Jewish State comes from other Jews.

It might surprise you to learn that this data comes from the summer of 2015!

Can you imagine if such a survey was conducted today?!

As we watch dueling rallies of thousands and thousands of Israelis, as we listen to the horrible name calling and rhetoric being launched at opposing camps, as we witness the erosion of the social covenant keeping together Israeli civil society and the army – how can we not feel the meaningfulness of the raw comparisons between Jerusalem under siege before its destruction in 70 C.E. and this moment in Jewish history.

And consider us warned.  Famously, the rabbis relate that Jewish society in the first century C.E. was filled with Torah study, observance of mitzvot and beautiful acts of loving kindness.  Jewish life in Jerusalem was robust and alive, and the destruction of the Second Temple was not the last step of a process of protracted decline.

But the rabbis of the Talmud identified our people’s Achilles heel:  the undoing of Jewish independence was brought about by Jewish hands.  Jewish hatred for other Jews (sinat chinam) was the only force that could end the Second Commonwealth.

This term sinat chinam is often translated as unjustified or baseless hatred, as if a justified hate would be reasonable.

This definition does not capture the intention of the rabbis who were describing a type of hate that flows without abatement.  That overwhelms and blinds one from seeing anything else but hate.  A hate that is so black, it allows no cracks of light to shine through from the other side.

The rabbis were describing a pathology of the inability to truly see one’s fellow Jew.  To see and acknowledge the light that is contained even in the opposing side.

This type of seeing is not easy.  Frankly, it’s often terrifying.  Because to see in these ways means acknowledging that one never has complete truth.

No community or ideology reflects all that can or should be.

Rav Kook (the first chief rabbi of the Land of Israel) was the greatest Jewish spokesman for this life-giving understanding that truth is like a three-dimensional precious stone, where different groups represent different facets of a single whole.  Judaism itself contains within it many facets, many groups that are all a source of light.

But free-flowing hatred snuffs out the light of other groups and ultimately brings darkness to the entire world.

This understanding provides the background for Rav Kook’s well-known and often quoted statement around Tisha B’av:

“If we were destroyed, and the world with us, due to free-flowing hatred (sinat chinam), then we shall rebuild ourselves and the world with us, with free-flowing love (ahavat chinam).” (Orot HaKodesh, vol.  III, p. 324.)

What is free-flowing love that has the power to build-up in contrast to free-flowing hatred that blinds?

It’s a love that begins with humility.  An awareness that we all see the world and Judaism differently.  Some of us will emphasize one aspect, others another aspect.  Some will be moved by these stories, and others will want to tell those stories.

Rav Kook asked us to embrace a love that overwhelms moments of disagreement.  To embrace a love that allows us to see beyond our divisions and appreciate the light even within those whom we differ.

Like never before since the destruction of the last Jewish commonwealth we are faced with urgent questions whose answers will determine the course of Jewish history:

  • Are we prepared to acknowledge that our community’s way, our truth, our Judaism is only a partial representation of Truth?
  • Do we have the courage to see the light embedded in Jewish communities who look and speak very differently than our own?
  • And can we muster renewed conviction to build a society that truly understands that different Jewish voices are needed to represent the whole of the Will of the Living God?

And it’s time for us to connect the dots.   It’s time for honest talk.  There is a structure in place that undermines the possibilities of love.

The current Israeli religious system where certain Orthodox/male voices are authorized and supported while other Jewish voices and visions are excluded and delegitimized does not create an environment where Rav Kook’s free-flowing love (ahavat chinam) may flourish.  This is not a system that recognizes the multivocality of the Jewish project.  It teaches a Judaism of “those-in” and “those-out.”

Such a world view undermines curiosity and encourages dismissing people and communities.  The very structure of the present Israeli religious system –– with its full embrace of black and white binary choices – too easily creates an environment for sinat chinam.  This is a chilling conclusion.

But there is reason for hope.  On the ground in Israel today there are spiritual leaders – across all the expressions of Israeli Judaism – creating communities reflecting the light and openness of Rav Kook.  We are living through a miraculous moment of Jewish and Israeli history where thousands of Israelis are standing up and demanding to be a part of the Jewish tradition – on their own terms.  They are exploring the way Jewish texts, rituals and music may add meaning and richness to their modern lives.  Importantly, the conceptual assumption of this renaissance in Jewish life is that no single community contains all that Judaism is and may yet be.

This Tisha B’av let’s be honest about how we got to this moment and what we need to put in place to move constructively forward. There’s a lot of light for us to see.

About the Author
Rabbi David Hoffman is President of the Honey Foundation for Israel. The Honey Foundation for Israel invests in the growing field of Israeli communal rabbinic and spiritual leadership, around the entire country and across the broad spectrum of religious expression, providing financial and professional resources that allow these talented leaders to build robust and engaged communities.
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